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Liz Moore's sprawling novel The Unseen World covers several large themes: the politics of the 1950s, hidden identities, artificial intelligence, Alzheimer's disease, and the relationships between parents and children. The book starts in the 1980s, and spends time both in the past and the future. It's ambitious and occasionally tries the reader's patience. The ideas overshadow the characters. But the plot moves along swiftly, and there are enough mysteries to uncover to keep the momentum going all the way through.
The central character is Ada, who is 12 when we first meet her. She lives with her father David, and we soon see how unusual her life is. They live in Boston, and he works in a computer science lab. Ada has no friends her own age, but instead is educated by her father and the other scientists in the lab. The lab works on many projects but especially the creation of an artificial intelligence program they call Elixir. The goal is to make Elixir able to pass the Turing test: i.e., to appear as human. All members of the lab spend hours typing on their keyboards interacting with Elixir, and the program learns from each interaction. But they also tell Elixir their secrets.
David's approach to parenting is eccentric but Ada does receive a very sophisticated education. He is a hard task master and while he focuses on science and mathematics, he also teaches her about history, literature and other subjects to make her a well-rounded student. Ada is mature in some ways, including her ability to interact with adults. But she has not had much experience with children, and she is shy around her peers.
When David starts to show the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's, Ada has to take on responsibility for caring for her father. She gets help from a woman who works in David's lab, Liston, who herself is a mother with four children of her own. As David's abilities begin to decline, Ada becomes unable to cope with him and increasingly becomes involved with the Liston family, where the lifestyle is much more typical of most people's experience. She then starts to see her father from the point of view of other people. As he had warned her, he is not admired by all and some suggest that his decisions have been bad, and this puts Ada in the difficult position of wondering how to judge her own father.
Ada's adult life is covered in a much more cursory way. She has a job in the tech industry, but she is not particularly happy. She is single and her dating life is not very satisfactory. She is a bit lost, and then she encounters one of Liston's sons and they uncover clues to David's life which leads to a whole new section of the book delving into the past. The book ends in the future, with some extravagant ideas that are nevertheless rather predictable.
The theme of artificial intelligence has been prominent in much recent film and many novels. The Unseen World doesn't provide any dramatic new insights but the combination with the other themes makes this a distinctive and engaging novel. At its end, it takes a firm stand in the issue of whether machines are capable of genuine intelligence and of sharing other human features, which will startle some philosophers.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by Lisa Flanagan, whose voice is smooth and pleasant, important qualities for a 14 hour reading.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring is ready to teach a course in robot ethics.